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1943-9: The Years of Terror

Of the German occupation there is little to say, except that it caused the islanders to feel more appreciation for the Italians they had lost. It seldom happens that a people can learn to feel friendly towards their oppressors, but hardly since Roman times had there been any other kind of rule in Cephallonia. Now there were no more Italians working in the fields beside the farmers in order to escape the boredom of army life, there were no more football matches between teams that quarrelled and cheated, there were no flirtations with girls by soldiers who had a cigarette hanging from the corners of their mouths. There were no more voices sending out opera tunes across the pine trees of the mountains. Gone were the charming chicken-thieves, and in their place came a period of time that the doctor recorded in his History as the worst time of all.

The islanders remember that the Germans were not human beings. They were machines without principles, machines that only knew how to loot and kill, without any passion except the love of strength, and without belief except in their natural right to destroy an inferior race.

The Italians had of course been thieves, but their shame when caught showed that they recognized their guilt. The Germans came into the house at any time of day, kicked over the furniture, beat the occupants, however old or young, and in front of their eyes carried away whatever they liked. Both Pelagia and her father were beaten at different times for no apparent cause. Drosoula had cigarettes burned into her skin for frowning at an officer. The doctor had all his precious medical equipment, gathered together over twenty years of poverty, broken in his presence by four officers whose hearts were as dark and empty as the caves of hell.

When in November 1944 the German troops were ordered to withdraw, they destroyed every building for which they found the time, and the inhabitants of Cephallonia rose up against them and fought them all the way to the sea.

But the night before he left, Gunter Weber, who had ashamedly stayed away from the house since the time of the killings, brought his record player and his collection of Marlene Dietrich records and left them outside Pelagia’s door, as he had promised in happier days. He wrote a note in Italian: ‘God be with you, I will remember you always.’

Pelagia hid the record player in the hole in the floor, with Antonio’s mandolin and Carlo’s papers, and it survived the terrible years that followed.

The Germans left and the celebrations began, but no sooner had the bells begun ringing than the members of the Communist organization ELAS, now calling themselves EAM, came out from hiding and attempted to take control of the country. They formed Workers’ Councils and elected themselves to every post of authority. In Cephallonia the Communists began to send awkward characters to prison camps. On the mainland they poisoned, with dead animals, the water of villages that opposed them. Into mass graves they threw the dead bodies of Greeks who had had their eyes torn out and their mouths cut into the shape of a smile. They kidnapped 30,000 little children and sent them across the border into Communist Yugoslavia to be taught how to be true Communists. ELAS soldiers captured by the British were so frightened of their leaders that they begged to be allowed to remain in British prison camps.

Pelagia and the doctor were two out of millions of people whose lives were forever destroyed by these butchers. The doctor was dragged away in the night by three men who had decided that since he was a doctor he must be a Fascist. They threw Pelagia into a corner and beat her unconscious with a chair. When Kokolios came out from his house to defend the doctor, he too was carried away, even though he was a Communist. He was accompanied by Stamatis, a supporter of the royal family, and the three men were taken to the harbour for transportation.

Pelagia did not know what had happened to her father, and none of the authorities would tell her. Alone in the house, penniless and helpless, for the first time in her life she thought of ending everything by killing herself. The island seemed to be cursed by an endless series of oppressors. When would Antonio return? The war was continuing in Europe, and probably he was dead. She heard that the Communists had been killing the Italian soldiers who had come to fight alongside them against the Greeks. Had the time come, finally, to hate the Greeks? Of the nations who had broken into her house to beat her and steal her possessions, only the Italians were innocent, it seemed.

Fortunately she had a friend. Drosoula had long known that Pelagia had lost her love for Mandras, and that by his long silence he had given up his rights. She knew also that Pelagia was waiting for an Italian, but she felt no bitterness and never uttered a single word of blame. When Pelagia stumbled bleeding through her door after the Communists had taken Dr Iannis, Drosoula, who had also suffered much, stroked her hair and uttered loving words, as if Pelagia were her own daughter. Within a week she had closed up her little house on the harbour and moved into the doctor’s house on the hill. She found his Italian gun in a drawer and kept it at her side in case of attack.

Like Pelagia, Drosoula had been reduced by the war. The layers of fat had melted from her waist and thighs, and her great ugly moon of a face had sunk inwards. However, her tall, thin form and grey hairs demanded respect, and her unbroken spirit gave Pelagia strength.

For comfort they slept together in the doctor’s bed, and by day they made plans to find supplies of food and listened to each others complaints and stories. They dug for roots in the undergrowth, and Drosoula took her young friend down to the harbour to learn to fish.

But Drosoula was out when Mandras returned, full of selfimportance and new ideas, expecting the admiring attention of the young woman he had not seen for years, and determined to take revenge. He came in through the door without knocking and leaned his gun against the wall. When she heard the noise in the kitchen, Pelagia, who was in her room, called out, ‘Drosoula?’ A man came in who she did not recognize, except that he looked very like Drosoula had done before the war; there was the same swollen stomach and thighs, the same round, coarse face and thickened lips. Puzzled, Pelagia stood up.

Mandras also was confused. There was something about this desperately thin, frightened girl that reminded him of Pelagia, but this woman had silver threads in her thin black hair, her blouse and skirt hung straight to the ground, her cheeks were hollow. He looked quickly around the room to see whether Pelagia was there, assuming that this must be a cousin or an aunt. ‘Mandras, is it you?’ said the woman, and he recognized the voice.

He stood, amazed and confused, with much of his hatred knocked out of him, while she looked at those coarse and altered features and felt deep disgust. ‘I thought you must be dead,’ she said finally.

He closed the door and leaned against it. ‘You mean you were hoping I was dead. As you see, I am not. I am very much alive and well. Don’t I get a kiss from my fiancee?’

She advanced fearfully and placed a kiss on his right cheek.

‘I am glad you are alive,’ she said.

He caught both her wrists and held them tightly. ‘I don’t think you are. How is your father, by the way? Is he not here?’

‘Let me go,’ she said softly, and he did so. ‘The Communists took him away’ she told him.

‘Well, he must have done something to deserve it.’

‘He did nothing. He healed the sick. And they beat me with a chair and took everything.’

‘There must be reasons. The party is never wrong. Whoever is not with us is against us.’

She noticed that he wore the red star of ELAS sewn into the front of his cap. ‘You’re one of them,’ she said.

He leaned against the door, placing all his weight against it, increasing her sense of imprisonment and her fear. ‘Not just one of them, an important one of them,’ he stated, sounding pleased with himself, then added challengingly, ‘Soon we will have a nice big house to live in. When shall we get married?’

She trembled and, seeing this, his anger increased. ‘We will not be married,’ she said. ‘We were very young, it was not what we thought it was.’

‘Not what we thought? And there was I, fighting for Greece, thinking of you all day and dreaming of you at night. And now I come back at last and find a faded cow who has forgotten me.’

‘What’s the matter with you?’ she asked.

‘The matter with me?’ He took from his pocket a thick bundle of papers. ‘This is what is the matter with me.’ He threw them towards her feet and she picked them up slowly. She held the bundle in her hands and realized that it consisted of her letters to him in Albania. ‘My letters?’ she said, turning them over in her hands.

Mandras gave a sudden roar of disgust and, seizing the letters, he found the last one, held it up to the light and read, ‘You never write to me, and at first I was sad and worried. Now I realize that you cannot care and this has caused me to lose my love for you also. I want you to know that I have decided to release you from your promises. I am sorry,’

He gave a smile that was both humourless and threatening. ‘Yes, I’m able to read now, and this is what I found in the letters I had been carrying next to my heart. And now I know the truth. Do you know the first thing I heard when I arrived back here? I heard, “Mandras, did you hear about your old fiancee? She’s going to marry an Italian.” So you’ve found a Fascist for yourself, have you? Is this what I’ve been fighting for, you cow?’

Pelagia stood up, her lips trembling, and said, ‘Mandras, let me out.’

‘Let me out,’ he repeated, ‘let me out. Poor little thing’s frightened, is she?’ He came up to her and struck her across the face so hard that she spun round before she fell. He kicked her in the stomach and bent down to pick her up by the wrists, then he threw her on the bed and, quite against his original intentions, began to tear at her clothes.

This rape of women was something that he could not help, it seemed. It was a feeling that came from deep inside him, something he had learned in years of not needing to explain his actions to anyone. It was his natural right, and the violence was much more exciting than the s@xual act itself.

But Pelagia fought. Her nails broke in his flesh, she struck him with hands and knees and elbows, she screamed and struggled. To Mandras her resistance was unreasonable, he was failing despite his weight and strength, and he sat back and hit her repeatedly. Then suddenly he tried to pull up her skirts. The solid weight of her gun fell out of its pocket and landed beside her head on the pillow, but Mandras did not see it, and when the bullet cracked through his shoulder, the shock knocked him backwards and he gazed at Pelagia in shock and accusation.

Drosoula heard the crack of the gunshot just as she came through the kitchen door and at first she did not recognize the sound, but then she knew what it was and took the Italian gun from the drawer. Without thinking, knowing that thought would make her a coward, she pushed open the door of Pelagia’s room and saw there the unthinkable.

She had thought that Pelagia might have shot herself, that there might be thieves, but when she burst in, she saw the doctor’s daughter leaning up on her elbow, her face swollen and bloody, her lips split, her clothes torn. Drosoula followed Pelagia’s gaze and saw, leaning against the wall behind the door, a man who might have been her son. She ran to Pelagia’s side and took her into her arms, rocking her, and heard the words, ‘He… tried … to… rape me.’

Drosoula stood up, and mother and son examined each other in disbelief. So much had changed. As the anger grew in the woman, the fire in Mandras died. A wave of self-pity overcame him and all he wanted to do was weep; everything had come to nothing, everything was lost. The horror of the war in Albania, the years in the forest, his new power and importance, it was all a dream, and he was a frightened little boy again, trembling before the anger of his mother. And his shoulder hurt so much. He wanted to show it to her, to win her attention. He wanted her to touch and heal it.

But she pointed the gun at him and spat the one word that seemed to mean the most, ‘Fascist’.

‘Mother…’ he said in a voice that was low and frightened.

‘How dare you call me “mother”? I am no mother and you are not my son. I have a daughter…’ she pointed to Pelagia, who had curled into a ball, ‘… and this is what you do. I do not know you, never in my life do I want to see you again, I have forgotten you, my curse goes with you. May you never know peace, may your heart burst in your chest, may you die alone,’ She spat on the ground and shook her head with disgust. ‘Pig rapist, get out before I kill you.’

Mandras left his gun leaning against the wall of the kitchen, and with bright red blood on his right hand where he still held his wound, he stumbled out into the cold December sun. He looked through tearful eyes at the tree where once he had swung and laughed, and where, he seemed to remember, there had once been a goat. It was a tree that was incomplete without Pelagia as she was, fresh and beautiful, slicing onions beneath it and smiling through the tears. A wave of grief overcame him and his throat tightened with sorrow.

It did not occur to him that he was just one more life twisted and ruined by the war. He was aware only that heaven had disappeared, that hope had turned to dust, that joy, which had once shone brighter than the summer sun, had disappeared into the black light and cold heat of mass murder. He had struggled for a better world and instead had destroyed it.

There was once a place where all had shone with delight and innocence. He stood still for a moment, recalling where it was; then he went down to the sea, stood on the waterline, and kicked off his boots. With his right hand he slowly removed his clothes till he stood with nothing on. He realized he wanted only to feel the sea and sand upon his skin. He needed to be washed.

He remembered days in his boat with nothing to do except fish; he remembered his joy when something fine was landed for Pelagia, his pleasure at her pleasure when he gave it to her. He remembered that in those days he was beautiful. He began walking into the sea that would take his life, and by drowning him make him clean, make him pure and innocent once more.

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